Staying the course

December 28, 1997|By George Will

WASHINGTON -- Yes, yes, we have been told. Philosophers tell us that change is life's only constant. Poets tell us that the center cannot hold, and all that is beautiful drifts away like the waters. Scientists say even the continents are adrift.

But Brooks Brothers, the clothier founded in Manhattan in 1818, was supposed to be the still point of the turning world. For generations it has defined conservatism in men's dress -- blue and gray natural shoulder suits, blue and white oxford cloth shirts with button-down collars, striped ties.

Lovely lavender

So why in recent years have the clothier's display windows become a silent pandemonium of scandalizing colors? What are those lavender dress shirts -- about the coral-colored ones, let us not even speak -- doing in Brooks Brothers stores, even the flagship store which opened in 1915 at the corner of 44th and Madison Avenue?

Selling, that's what those lavender and coral shirts are doing. So says Brooks Brothers' believable chief executive officer, Joseph Gromek, who, it is heartening to note, is not wearing one of them jTC this day. He says that when such shirts are worn under gray or navy suits ''they calm down a lot.'' File that under ''faint praise.''

Brooks Brothers, which went through a rocky patch in the 1980s, is now coining money: In the most recent half-year reporting period, operating profits were up 118.3 percent over the corresponding period last year. Evidently Brooks Brothers is solving a problem that politicians always face -- how to appeal to a wider electorate without alienating their base.

Brooks Brothers' base consists of hidebound mossbacks who hate change -- in short, people who are the backbone of this republic. But a few years ago the average age of the clothier's customers was in the 50s, so the problem was to get other people into the store. (Time was, Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue closed on Saturdays because ''outsiders'' shopped then.) Now youth has come knocking at the door, but youth often does not know how to dress up -- or down.

Dress up? They are a lost generation, sartorially. They attend college classes looking like derelicts. (The following proposition resists proof but is irresistibly plausible: Today's slovenly standards in education are not unrelated to the disorder and indifference to standards communicated by many teachers' appearances.) Then they enter the business world and have no clue how to cope with that deplorable innovation called ''casual Fridays.''

In 1955, when William F. Buckley, a Brooks Brothers customer, founded National Review (not far from that cultural epicenter, 44th and Madison), he said the magazine ''stands athwart history, yelling Stop.'' For an iconic institution like Brooks Brothers, there is a duty to stand athwart fashion fads and say, as insistently as commercial imperatives will permit, ''Not so fast.''

Brooks Brothers patrons are used to slings and arrows. In ''Guys and Dolls,'' which opened on Broadway in 1950, a gangster disparages his doll's interest in a ''breakfast-eating, Brooks Brothers type.'' Sloan Wilson's ''The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit'' featured a Brooks Brothers man. That novel, a critique of postwar ''conformity,'' came a decade before America began to experience the fruits of aggressive nonconformity to what were disparaged as ''bourgeois values.'' In 1970, after the 1960s had done their worst against good taste, a fashion Bolshevik declared, ''Button-downs were the ultimate symbol of uptightness.''

Well, the world turns and the counterrevolution against the 1960s and all its works continues. Uptightness does not seem like such a sin, now that we live surrounded by cultural unraveling. Brooks Brothers' best-selling item is the button-down shirt (more than half a million a year), and half the shirts Brooks Brothers sells are blue.

Such data put a spring in the step of those few, those happy few for whom it shall forever be the 1950s, with a Sinatra song always in the air as they stride briskly toward martinis beneath the clock at the Biltmore Hotel, which was -- nothing lasts -- a very short walk from 44th and Madison.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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